Friday, February 25, 2011

Not like the movies ...

As my 19-year-old daughter and I were driving to Iowa City the other night, she played me a song she liked: "Not Like the Movies" by Katy Perry. I liked it, too. And the last couple of days, I've thought about just how weirdly appropriate its lyrics are at this point in my life. I can guarantee you, though, the way I'm interpreting them is not the way Ms. Perry intended.

My dad, at 91, is nearing the end of his life. How soon he'll get there, we don't know, but things haven't been looking too great this week. He's bounced back before, and could again. But he's ill and he's weak and he's tired, and I'm trying to look reality square in the face and digest that one of these times is really going to be the end.

I guess I've always had it in my head that as death nears, it's sure to promise at least a few "Terms of Endearment"-type moments for the person involved and his or her loved ones: professions of love, confessions of regret, maybe even a secret or two revealed. But so far, it's nothing like that. It's numbing and sad and just really, really hard.

I hope it goes without saying that I'm not looking for sympathy here. My dad has lived a really, really long life.  I know at least two 40-year-olds who are seriously ill; at least one acquaintance has dealt with the death of a child. In Dad's case, the life cycle is working the way it's supposed to, and there's no way any of us could be angry or resentful.

Dad has faced tragedy in his life; he lost a little sister at 7, his mother at 16, and his first wife, my mother, when he was in his mid-40s. But he's also enjoyed some very happy times: He remarried, traveled, saved and invested his money well, bought a new car every two years and new houses every five or so. He was active and healthy until a few years ago, and he lives his life on his terms.

But now, not a lot is on his terms -- or anyone's, really.  This may be my blog, but it's his story, so I'm not going to go into detail; suffice it to say that if he were aware enough to realize how things are looking and sounding and feeling, he would be devastated, and he would just want out.

My sister was 24 when our mother died, while I was 4 and oblivious -- a good thing for me, because Teresa says Mom's death was far more difficult than anything we're experiencing here. But she is somehow of sturdier stock than I, and I sometimes feel I'm not holding up my end of things. While Teresa is a rock and handles all of the heavy lifting practically and capably, I sit in a corner, huddled and shivering into my pea coat, muted and stunned into submission by the reality of it all.

It's not even remotely like the movies. Instead, it's just the way Dylan Thomas advised that it should be.  Naively, that's not what I bargained for. But there's no clearer illustration of the storm that's enveloping us right now.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You can't really teach bedside manner; thanks, Edgar.

I’ve never believed compassion is something that can be taught.  Edgar is proof that I’m correct.

Edgar works at Edgewater, the facility in West Des Moines where my dad is residing for the time being.  He’s the lead nurse in a “cottage community” that includes some long-term residents and others who, like my dad, arrived there to recuperate from illnesses and gain strength after hospital stays.

Edgar is not very old – my guess would be he's in his late 20s.  But we’ve seen a lot of health-care professionals over the last couple of years, and while I’ve tended to prefer that Dad is cared for by experienced nurses – especially after a recent experience at Iowa Methodist – Edgar is causing me to reevaluate my prejudice against younger professionals.

Dad had a bad night last night.  Following a breathing treatment, he became agitated and confused.  So as is frequently the case when I’m not able to make things better on my own, I sought out Edgar.

Edgar smells like Abercrombie cologne, so before I see him, I can smell him – it’s hard to explain, but given the situation, I am sometimes soothed by the fact that I can that detect Edgar is around without his being in my line of vision.  So last night, I smelled him, and then I saw him, and then everything just seemed to become calmer.

Edgar sat on one side of the bed and I sat on the other.  As Dad asked, over and over, where he was and what he was supposed to be doing, Edgar kept his voice low and soft as he repeated the same information over and over.  If he was starting to become irritated, I wasn’t able to sense it.

“You are at the rehab place, not in the hospital, and this is your room for now, Charlie,” Edgar said again and again, as Dad was insisting he was at Iowa Methodist. “We’re here to take care of you, and you are safe.  It’s OK to sleep now, and I’ll check on you all the time.”

Any nurse would have been able to tell Dad where he was, but the last part got me: “You are safe, and it’s OK to sleep.”  To a 91-year-old man whose mind is jumbled with illness and medication, that’s all that really matters: the knowledge that he’s safe from harm, and that someone will be there all night long in case, especially in the dark, the confusion becomes too frightening to handle.

Something else about Edgar: He touches my dad.  Again, that might not sound like a big deal, but it’s all about the ability to soothe.  Suffice it to say my dad doesn’t always lend himself to being comforted easily.  In his confusion and fear, he often becomes angry and belligerent.  But none of that fazes Edgar.  He’s quick to touch my dad’s arm, pat his shoulder, even rub his head.  

Because Edgar has not been a nurse for years and years, his bedside manner isn’t something he’s cultivated over time. But Edgar is from East Africa, and in his culture, older people are treated differently from the way they are in the United States.  In fact, given things I’ve heard and read, most other countries do a better job than we do of caring for the elderly.  Whereas some Americans can’t seem to be bothered with people whose need for intense care is inconvenient, other countries respect and revere individuals who have lived long enough to be very wise.

My sister and I, and our dad’s wife, are not able to be with Dad 24/7.  We consider ourselves to be pretty devoted, but on weekdays, we're with Dad only three or four of every 24 hours.  During the other 20 or 21, Edgar and his team of caring, capable CNAs and other staff members have to step in.

When it comes right down to it, of course we wish Dad could be cared for at home.  But we're also fortunate that even though we’re forced to cultivate a pseudo-family to help us care for him, Edgar is part of it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"I always know I have somewhere to go where people care about me."

Sometimes an invitation to put one's life in perspective comes from the least likely source.

My dad isn't doing well, and I knew I was going to have to squeeze in a phone interview for a Register story while he was napping. I hadn't researched much about the person I was interviewing, so I was basically going to have to do it cold. Plus, the interview subject is 90; I wondered if she'd be able to hear on the phone.  With a deep sigh, I dialed the number as Dad slept.

The woman's name is Alice, and she's worked as a secretary at a church -- the same church -- for nearly 60 years. For a long time, she said, the church didn't pay her, but she didn't really care; she loved the work. When the church finally did start giving her a salary, chances are it wasn't much. 

But here's what Alice said: "The pastors I've worked for haven't ever made me come in all day, or even every day. But I loved knowing that I could just go up and work when I wanted to. The people there have always been so lovely, and they've been like a family to me. I had to have an operation right after I got married, so we couldn't have any children -- but the good Lord didn't forget me. Thanks to the church, I have hundreds of 'adopted' children and grandchildren.

"I can't imagine anyone more blessed than I am. I love my work, and I would still do it for free if they would let me. After all, I always know I have somewhere to go where people care about me."

I felt hot tears rolling down my cheeks as I listened to her. And I thought back over my piddly list of grievances for the day:
  • I don't have time to get my roots colored.
  • I have a canker sore.
  • I have no time to myself.
  • I need to iron.
  • I forgot to switch laundry from the washer to the dryer before I left for work.
I felt ashamed. Here's what I really do have -- healthy, smart, accomplished kids. An understanding husband who keeps his grievances to himself. A job I like and that pays me fairly; freelance work that brings me satisfaction. Time to sit with my father as he, we're hoping, grows stronger.   

And Alice is 90, and she gives thanks every day because she has somewhere to go, and she's able to see people who love her. A big paycheck? Something tells me if she was offered one, she'd give it away.

Sometimes I think that at my advanced age, I'm truly starting to "get" it. And then I listen to someone like Alice and realize I still have such a long, long way to go to be the person I want to be when I grow up.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Forget "Glee." This is why show choir really matters.

There they were, on stage, typical middle-school show-choir students. Cute kids in lime-green dresses and black suits. An especially cute boy, his hair clearly styled after Justin Bieber's, was wearing a lime-green cast on his wrist. The students' singing and dancing were fun to watch; the show was a good, solid eighth-grade performance. I expected these kids to blend in with the rest of the night's better choirs, and I anticipated that tomorrow or the day after, I probably wouldn't remember what school they represented.

Then he came out from stage left, and everything changed.

He was a boy of about 13 with sandy hair and glasses. He was about the same height as the rest of the boys, and slender like most of them. But those were the only similarities, and as he took his place on the stage, I heard a collective intake of breath and immediately felt the tears threaten.

The boy appeared to have cerebral palsy. His knees turned in so that they touched; one foot was turned almost sideways, and the other swung to the side. His arms mimicked the movements of the rest of the choir, but they spasmed so that he had a hard time keeping up with the rest of the dancers. During the group's ballad, as the rest of the singers and dancers stood motionless, the boy's arms and legs contorted constantly.

But as I watched a while, the movements began to fade into the background ... and after a few more measures, all I really noticed was the way the boy was singing. His head was back, his mouth was wide open, and his eyes were turned to the heavens. For the two songs during which he was on stage, he was clearly giving the performance all he had.

And the most amazing thing: He was front and center. In this day and age, when awareness of and respect for diversity are -- thankfully -- important parts of the collective public-school curriculum, it wasn't really a surprise that he was participating ... but it was a surprise, and a beautiful one, that his choir was clearly showcasing him. And when the boys and girls approached the front of the stage for their final bow, he was leading the pack. A girl reached out from behind to steady him as he pitched forward a bit, but then he righted himself and was still singing as he followed the other members into the wings.

The crowd was on its feet, and my daughter, 19, who hopes to direct her own choir one day, was crying and shaking her head in amazement. I wasn't even trying to hide the tears by that time.

"He probably lives for these performance weekends," my daughter said. "I wish everyone who says that show choir isn't a big deal and doesn't really benefit kids could have been here tonight."

And I thought: Imagine what this means to his parents.

Inclusion is one thing and acceptance is another, but this was a whole different ball game. There's no way words can do it justice. I hope this young man felt the embrace tonight -- not just from his peers, but from an overflowing Urbandale Show Choir Invitational audience that I can guarantee will never forget him.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Of course I’m not listening to Taylor Swift. Why do you ask?

I can’t sing, but music has always been a big part of my life. When you’re a shy kid who prefers books to people, it’s natural, I think, for the lyrics in a song to speak to you in much the same way words on a page do. During my formative years, then, I spent a lot of time lying with my head hanging upside down off my bed, blood rushing to my brain in time with the ‘70s songs blasting through my giant RadioShack headphones. I love a variety of music, and I love it a lot.

So at lunchtime today, I grabbed my iPod in preparation for my walk through the skywalks to get some soup at Bruegger’s. My iPod tends to keep my musical secrets pretty well; unless I tell, no one knows I occasionally listen to “Ice, Ice Baby” or “Wichita Lineman.” But today, I really, really needed not to “out” one of my musical selections … and I was my own worst enemy.

I have my own pretty strong musical tastes, but my kids, 22 and 19, historically have exposed me to a lot of music on my “favorites” playlist as well. From Scott, I learned of Trevor Hall and G. Love. Caroline exposed me to modern Broadway music – Jason Robert Brown is now a favorite. So I wish I could blame this on them, but I can’t:

I tend to like a lot of Taylor Swift songs.

What’s the problem with that, you ask? For starters, I’m not 13. And historically, I’ve been somewhat of a music snob. Case in point: When the iPod was on “shuffle” today, the songs preceding the fateful Swift tune were “Middle of the Road” by the Pretenders and “Love Song” by the Cure. I wish I had skipped right to Eric Clapton's "Let It Rain," but I didn’t. I opted to listen to “Mine” by Taylor Swift, and that was when it happened.

For those of you who know the downtown-Des Moines skywalks, I was in the Locust Mall portion, approaching the restaurant that used to have a sports theme and most recently was a pizza place and can’t seem to stay open. A couple of young guys were walking toward me, but were still a good distance away. But I only vaguely noticed them, as I wasn’t really paying attention. Not a surprise to those of you who know me: I tend to be easily distracted.

And because I was distracted, I was singing. Not all that loudly, but loudly enough that at least one of the gentlemen, as he walked closer, obviously heard me singing along with the refrain: “I remember we were sittin’ there by the water…” etc. And the guy, who actually is young enough to listen to Taylor Swift without creeping out the people around him, laughed. At me. For singing.

Let me be the first to say that I would have laughed, too; when you’re using an iPod, you should be aware enough to realize that simply because you can’t hear others doesn’t mean they can’t hear you. I was reminded of this thing my kids did when they were little: They’d cover their own eyes and squeal, “You can’t see me! I’m hiding!”

And there I was, unfortunately not invisible, walking along with my face on fire. I reached down and quickly hit the "forward" button on the iPod, and the Clapton song came on. And I wanted to run back after the guys and say, “Here! Listen to this! See? There’s more to this iPod than you think!” But I kept walking and listening to the music, and before too long, I got distracted and stopped thinking about what had happened. Thankfully, though, not too distracted: As I rounded the corner into the lobby of my building, another song came on by – you guessed it.

My traitor of an iPod? It’s in the bottom of my purse. When I resurrect it, maybe I’ll stick with instrumentals for a while.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Once upon a time, a dog went to a hotel. By himself.

About three years ago, my stepson, Logan, was celebrating his birthday with several friends. They were playing outside, and someone accidentally left the backyard gate open.

Later that evening, Kevin and I realized that Jack, one of our dogs, was missing. While I called Animal Control to ask if he might have been picked up, Kevin and the boys combed the neighborhood to no avail. By bedtime, it looked as if Jack had taken off for greener pastures. We went to sleep with heavy hearts.

At about 4 a.m., the doorbell scared us all awake. The guest as an Urbandale police officer, who led Kevin to the driveway. There, in the front seat of the police cruiser, was a little shih tzu, looking comfortable as could be. He should have been; as the officer told us, Jack had been hanging out at a hotel.

It seems Jack had taken off and, drunk with freedom, ventured a little too far from home. About a mile from our house, he crossed the threshold of a nice family hotel on Merle Hay Road. His presence set off the automatic door's censor, and he trotted in, gave the place a quick once-over, and settled in on the couch in the lobby.

The hotel called the police, and an officer matched the little guest with our missing-canine report. Jack returned home none the worse for wear ... and never ventured far again.

That's partly why it surprised us this morning when Jack appeared to be injured; he's almost 13 now, and most often could have been found on our couch, in Logan's room, or on the foot of our bed. He had spent last night curled up on Kevin's lap as Kevin watched movies in the basement, but in spite of his lack of activity, something obviously had gone wrong between midnight and morning. He was dragging his back legs and whimpering.

While I wrapped Jack in a blanket and tried to comfort him, Kevin searched the yellow pages for a vet with Sunday hours. We found one, and off we went. Jack was shaking but no longer whimpering, and we hoped for an easy fix.

It was not to be. The verdict: A disc in Jack's back most likely had ruptured, disturbing impulses between his brain and his legs. The solution: Surgery at Iowa State, with a $3,000 (to start) price tag, the promise of 12 weeks of rehab time, and no guarantee that Jack -- a geriatric patient -- would survive.

Kevin and I entered marriage five years ago with our own pets; Buc, my and my kids' beagle, whom we had to have euthanized last year after his deterioration from a heart condition, and Jack, who belonged to Kevin and his kids. Buc and Jack had become fast friends, and Buc's demise was difficult for Jack. Luckily, my son's dog, Forty, who visits us often, somewhat filled the void for him.

So the decision was Kevin's to make, and it was a difficult one; in the end, though, he knew he couldn't ask Jack to suffer, then face an uncertain outcome. So the very kind vet did what she needed to do, and we held and petted Jack as we cried and told him he soon would be able to see his buddy Buc again.

Jack never asked for much; the hotel visit probably was the highlight of his life. Looking back, maybe we could have given him a bit more enjoyment; we could have played with him more, walked him more, not grumbled so much at his near-constant need for grooming. But in the end, I think we gave him the goodbye he deserved; it was painless, and he was looking into the eyes of the people who cared for him.

Rest in peace, Jack. I hope the lobby of Dog Heaven has a really nice couch.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

One of the greatest mother-daughter moments of all time...

One of the greatest mother-daughter moments of all time occurs when:
  • A mother and daughter are shopping for a dress for the daughter.
  • The mother sees a dress she knows is exactly the right cut and color for the daughter, and that it will look fabulous on her.
  • The mother hands the daughter the dress.
  • The daughter does NOT say the following: "I would never wear that." "That's an old-person dress." "Eww. No."
  • The daughter cheerily says, "OK," and takes the dress into the dressing room.
  • The daughter comes out in the dress, twirls in front of the mirror and says, "I love it."
  • The mother says, "It's the perfect cut for you," and the daughter says, "I know. Thank you."
I had one of those moments tonight -- actually, four of them. Dillard's was having a huge sale, I suggested four dresses to Caroline, and we bought them all (for less than I had planned to spend for one dress). I don't have photos of them yet, but check out the picture below. During her senior year of high school, we found that dress at 8:45 p.m. at a store that closed at 9. She hated it on sight; in fact, I think she may even have cried out of frustration when I pressured her to try it on. Two years later, it remains her favorite dress.

Four new dresses, and she's beautiful in each one. And I, obviously, am awesome. :)

Caroline, in the infamous 8:45 p.m. dress

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The sky is falling! Or ... we miss you, Connie McBurney

Hope I won’t be eating my words in a few hours, but this weather-alarmist stuff is on my last nerve.

As of yesterday, we were staring down the threat of a veritable wall of snow – 12 inches! the weather folks proclaimed. Later: OK, maybe not 12, but close to a foot! This morning at 8 a.m., whoops! WHO-TV was promising 5 inches. (Did the other 7 vanish while I was sleeping? If so – wow! How do I make that happen with the numbers on the scale?) And at 8:30, another reduction; the forecast was calling for 4.5 inches.

I work in communications, so I understand the premise of saying something better than everyone else says it – hopefully in a way that will draw an audience to you because people like the way you tell a story. But come on. This happens every time snow is forecast. A week before the predicted storm, we’re sure to be rendered homebound by the blizzard of the century. But by the time the thing hits, actual snowfall accounts to barely a dusting.

A Facebook friend pointed out this morning that relying on rather than local meteorologists is the way to go. And I agree – but at the same time, watching the news at 6 or 10 or both is habit for many of us. When I was little and wasn’t even a glint in technology’s eye, we hung on Connie McBurney’s every word – and back then, she was usually right. What happened?

Of course, being over-informed is preferable to being kept in the dark; we need to know about icy streets, for example. But the whole run-to-the-store-right-this-minute-and-stock-up thing constitutes more than overkill. I remember only once in my many years when snow kept us from going to the store; it was in April 1973, and a surprise blizzard trapped us inside for a day or so. I was 10 and thrilled with the Laura Ingalls Wilder flavor of it all.

If Mother Nature does dump on us tonight, I’ll eat my words – but for now, I’ll eat my lunch, calmly and rationally, as co-workers with small children scurry to finish the day’s tasks so they can claim their progeny from weather-dictated early dismissals from school. And we’ll all spend the afternoon with our noses glued to the windows … that is, when we’re not streaming local TV stations on our computers. What’s that you say, Mr. Meteorologist? The sky is falling?

Forgive me for not heading out for groceries. Something tells me I’ll be able to stop on my way home.